February, 2010

Jonny Greenwood – Doghouse

Alan Turing - Blue Plaque
(This photo has nothing to do with the concert, but I took it down the road from the BBC’s Maida Vale studios).
I’d never been to the BBC’s Maida Vale studios. But this evening I was off to them to see the BBC Concert Orchestra playing the world premiere of Jonny Greenwood’s new piece as Composer-in-Association (not Residence as the notes claimed) – Doghouse.
A deluge of rain gave a nice soaking to the hundred and fifty or so people queuing outside the studios just before we were let in.
There was a full programme recorded live with a Radio 3 presenter – Sara Mohr-Pietsch – introducing pieces or back announcing them as we heard them. Conducting was Robert Ziegler who I think has worked a little with Greenwood on this.
The selection of other music we heard was eclectic to say the least. It’s probably a fair reflection of the kind of music that the BBC Concert Orchestra plays regularly. So we heard some 40s and 50s pieces with their soaring strings from films of that period. But we jumped around quite a lot. So we heard Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo, a piece from Angelo Badalamenti’s Blue Velvet, an extract from the score to Limelight, apparently composed by Charlie Chaplin himself, and a piece featuring extracts from Frank Waxman’s score to Rebecca. There were also pieces by Robert Farnon and Angela Morley.
Before Doghouse, Mohr-Pietsch interviewed Greenwood and Ziegler about the genesis of the piece, and its meaning. Then we heard the 20 minute or so piece which I felt was somewhat different to the other pieces we’d heard. Trying to describe it here would be difficult, but if you’re familiar with Popcorn Superhet Receiver, which would become part of the awesome soundtrack to There Will Be Blood, will give you an idea. This is more challenging fare. Indeed it seems that this piece will inform the soundtrack to a forthcoming Japanese film, Norwegian Wood, based on the novel by Murakami.
Anyway, in a couple of weeks, you’ll be able to hear as it’s broadcast on Afternoon on 3 on Friday 19 March at 2pm.

Social Media and 6 Music

What’s been most interesting so far, following the news that the BBC might be shutting down, has been the reaction in the “Twittersphere” and online in general.
There were lots of callers on Victoria Derbyshire’s programme this morning, with Martin Kelner and John Myers also making appearances (there’s feedback throughout, but Kelner and Myers are on at about 1 hour 26 minutes in).
But it’s on Twitter that there’s really been a reaction. Here are the trending topics on Twitter as of a few minutes ago.
OK – that’s in media-luvvy London. What about the UK overall?
And worldwide:
(To be fair, this is before most of the US has woken up. Still a strong showing though.)
The comments are coming in thick and fast.
The Facebook group is going great guns:
And you can add a Twibbon to your avatar:
Then there are all the comments on the various news sites, blogs and forums.
Is all this too much for a station that fewer than 700,000 people listen to on a weekly basis? (Still nearly 200,000 more than The Times sells, as has been pointed out on Twitter, referring to The Times’ editorial that said the BBC is closing “a few radio stations that no one has ever listened to.”)
Maybe. But almost certainly not. That’s the point. It’s loved by those who listen. Yes – there’s a feeling that if as many people who are already missing it, actually listened to the station, then it wouldn’t be facing this threat. In the same way that if as many people who said they missed John Peel after his untimely death actually listened to him on Radio 1, then he wouldn’t have been shunted into the small hours.
But any station would kill for such loyal and vocal listeners. How many other stations could genuinely garner such an outpouring?

[Note: As ever, these are my opinions, and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.]

Murder in Samarkind

Again, I’m going to recommend something that’s just about to drop off the iPlayer. But if you have 90 minutes free before tomorrow afternoon, you could do a great deal worse than listen to David Hare’s terrific adaptation of Craig Murray’s memoir.
Murray, you will recall, was “our man in Tashkent” – British Ambassador to Uzbekistan. But he was also a loose canon in terms of how the Foreign Office saw him.
The book was excellent, and this version from Hare was a great listen. David Tennant played Murray, who certainly lived life to the full, despite his failings. The play has a strong narration, but it’s delivered believably by Tennant, and I was gripped, even though I knew the overall outcome.
Murray’s rambunctious blog is always worth a read.

BBC Closing Radio Services?

Friday’s Times is reporting that BBC 6Music and the Asian Network are to be closed under the BBC’s major strategic review.
As well as this, there’s likely to be cuts to other expenditure particularly on the web as well as cuts to imported programming, BBC Blast, BBC Switch, and sports expenditure.
If this proves to be the case, then I believe it’s a sad day for several reasons. First of all, it’s a sad day for people who will inevitably lose their jobs, if this report from Patrick Foster turns out to be accurate.
It’s also a sad day for digital radio. While there will be (and indeed – to an extent – are) commercial replacements for some of what the Asian Network offers, that’s not necessarily the case for 6Music which, while serving a niche, provides a much needed reason for people to buy digital radios.
Shouldn’t I be happy working for a service that crosses over to some extent with 6Music? Not at all. The very existence of that service lead people to to discover digital radio and thus the ability to discover other services. One less major brand is never a good thing. Perhaps there’ll be opportunities for services like Xfm or NME, but I’m really not sure.
Without new additional services, getting to a digital radio future is harder to accomplish. What’s odd here is that arguably Asian Network failed to work with disappointing audiences. But 6Music is much loved by its loyal listeners. It’s in an odd position of not having enough listeners, and having low awareness. Yet if it was more popular, commercial services might be much more concerned about it. Is 6Music expensive to run? Yes – almost certainly too expensive. Programming cuts were almost certainly called for. And they’re never easy to achieve while maintaining quality.
The Times piece suggests that following service reviews of Radio 1 and Radio 2, this leaves 30-50s free to commercial radio. I’m not entirely sure it’s as simple as that. Demographics is only part of it. Will the average 6Music listener immediately depart to a commercial station? Some will. Others will head off to Spotify and their iPod playlists.
Yet all in all, when the pros and cons are weighed up, I still think that this is bad piece of news for the whole radio industry.
Still it’s not exactly joined up thinking, with the news coming just days after the BBC Trust’s service review reported what 6Music needed to do in the future.
The next question is what actually fills that space? Will the BBC sub-let that capacity to two (or more) commercial services, will other music service expand their bit-rates to fill the capacity? Or will it lie fallow. It’s probably too early to say. But what if they undercut D1’s pricing!
As for other areas of cuts suggested in the piece? Well there are a few oddities. Does the BBC often outbid commercial operators for imported programming? I know it’s often said to be the case, but aside from Heroes, Mad Men and Damages, I struggle to think of much else the BBC shows that originates in the US. And don’t get me started on claims about The Wire – a series first shown on a commercial channel years ago.
The US networks and sports rights holders will also hate BBC cost cutting as costs will fall.
I did laugh at the idea that ITV will serve the “teenage” market. Aside from teenagers enjoying X-Factor as much as anyone else, I’m not sure what else they’re watching on the channel.
I’m very concerned about the BBC shutting “half its website.” Which half is that? The good stuff? The stuff we’ve paid for from our licence fees? Certainly not the news.
One thing that’s clear is that, if true (and we do need to wait for the BBC’s confirmation of this), it is poor news management from the BBC. Twitter is already alive with people who work for 6Music wondering how long they have jobs. That’s never the way you want to hear about important news.
[UPDATE] I’ve only just seen The Times’ nasty and spiteful editorial. Entitled “Big, bloated and cunning” it seems to love all the usual things like Planet Earth and Life on Mars. Yet these plans “constitute an evasive and artful strategy designed to keep the next government from intervening, while in reality changing very little.”
Wow. We shouldn’t forget that’s coming from a direct competitor of the BBC’s in Rupert Murdoch. Seemingly the BBC would just be closing “a few radio stations that no one has ever listened to and websites that few have ever visited.”
The Times thinks the BBC should be giving cash back to licence payers. I’ll remember that next time my Sky bill goes up.
Amongst other things it once again brings up the selling off of Radio 1: “If the BBC were serious about reform it would consider selling Radio 1 and getting out of the pop music business, which is hardly ill served by others.”
Can I just re-iterate to anyone from The Times who might be remotely interested. The sale of Radio 1 would devastate commercial radio closing down dozens of stations. The commercial radio industry does not want to see Radio 1 privatised. Nobody would be able to compete, and vast quantities of commercial revenue would flow to that service leaving others uneconomical.
The BBC is seemingly “the most powerful lobbying and effective organisation in Britain”.
And there was me thinking that might be Rupert Murdoch…
[Note: That these are my personal views, and don’t necessarily reflect those of my employer]

Science on Trial

If you’re quick, there’s still a chance to hear last week’s Radio 4 programme Science on Trial.
With enormous topicality, it examined some of the very concerning legal cases that have been brought in British courts surrounding use of libel laws to restrict scientific debate, and effectively silence some of those who otherwise promote remedies for which there are significant questions of efficacy.
This came to a head yesterday when Simon Singh appeared in the High Court in front of three of the most senior appeals judges in the country. He’s fighting a libel action brought by the British Chiropractic Association, after he authored a piece in The Guardian nearly two years ago.
If you ever actually visit my site (and aren’t just seeing it in an RSS reader), you’ll have perhaps noticed the link to Sense About Science. This is an important freedom that we need to fight for.
If you haven’t already, you really need to do a few things.
First of all – sign this petition for the reform of this country’s unjust libel laws. Even today’s Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee report highlights the injustice of this.
Go on – do it now.
For more background on the Simon Singh case, you can do no worse than read the Jack of Kent blog. He has a nice summary of events to date here, and a report on yesterday’s procedings here.
Simon Singh had penned a piece in the Daily Telegraph prior to yesterday’s appearance, and there was also a good primer in The Times.
Or listen to the programme linked to above.

Why Don’t We Get The BAFTAs Live?

I know that the easy answers are that:
1. the show runs for at least three hours and viewers would get bored, or
2. we can’t trust celebrities not to swear

and there’s a suspcision that
3. but then the after-parties wouldn’t start until post 11pm and that would be terrible.
But as things stand we’re in the worst possible place.
The awards begin in the Royal Opera House at 7pm from what I can tell. Yet the television broadcast begins at 9pm.
In last night’s TV broadcast we had some pretty significant awards cut from coverage, including Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema, Editing, Cinematography and Sound.
Seriously – those are really important awards. What’s more, until we saw the brief catch-up at the end of the programme, we didn’t really know the extent to which The Hurt Locker had cleaned up. That would have made it less suspenseful when the film won Best Film.
But what really doesn’t work in the socially-connected age that we live in, is that knowledge of who’s won comes out as soon as the award is made. Sites are blogging the results, live. Twitter and Facebook are full of the results. The news sites tell you who’s won. It’s pointless. If I so much as strayed online, or onto a news channel, it’d have been a “spoiler.”
If even the BRITS are carried live these days, why can’t something like the BAFTAs?
I suppose we should be thankful for small mercies. Unlike previous years, there were no embarrassing technical glitches that I could see. It does seem a shame that some of our best acting talent can’t give life to a couple of sentences without sounding like robots. I suppose at least Mickey Rourke was honest in this, but Rupert Everett and a couple of the others were appalling. And I think that if the BBC is losing Jonathan Ross elsewhere in the schedule, now would be a good time to give him a rest from the BAFTAs too.
Anyway, even though I’m about the last person in the world still not to have seen Avatar, I’m rather glad that The Hurt Locker won so much as it was excellent.

BBC Mobile Apps

The big news eminating from the BBC today is that they’re finally getting around to releasing some mobile applications.
That’s not entirely true: the BBC has previously released other applications, such as the iPlayer for various Nokia mobile phones. But notably, it hasn’t released any applications on the mobile daddy of them all – the iPhone.
As I understand it, this isn’t a reluctance on their part – I’m sure they were sitting by watching other media organisations put together some excellent applications and “steal a march”. I think this was more to do with the terms and conditions imposed by Apple and the BBC’s status under the Charter.
And then there’s the small matter of concern over users being landed with astronomical data bills because they watched last night’s Eastenders via 3G, and don’t have a good data package with their operator. I suspect that we’ll see stern warnings on-screen before you can embark on streaming over 3G.
Obviously those little local difficulties have been overcome, because as the BBC News site, the press office, the BBC Internet blog and Erik Huggers himself all announce today – apps are coming.
With the BBC not having done anything up until now, others have filled the void. A number of applications use BBC RSS feeds to serve up news and sports stories. Other applications gather together links to radio and television services – including the BBC’s – and are sold for profit.
So it certainly makes sense that the BBC does this itself.
And it’s pleasing to see that unlike some media outlets, the BBC understands that it needs to develop for platforms beyond the iPhone, including Blackberry and Android. Notably, S60 isn’t on that list. I don’t suppose that means it’s not being developed for, but it’s clear that despite a massive user base, it’s not a great development environment from what I can gather, and the variety of devices available for it can make coding for it problematic.
Anyway, having resolved that my next phone will be an Android device (HTC Desire – I have my eyes on you), I look forward to playing with these later in the year.

What’s The Truth Behind Digital Radio Figures?

The dust has settled a little bit on the last RAJAR figures were released.
But there were a number of stories surrounding RAJAR much like this one, highlighting the fact that the overall level of digital listening fell from 21.1% in Q3 2009 to 20.9% in Q4 2009.
That 0.2% drop was clearly disappointing, but perhaps not altogether surprising given that the margins of error in RAJAR clearly see even obvious trends occassionally shift backwards.
To put this in context, here’s the all digital listening figure since it first started being measured with the RAJAR Q2 2007 release:

Source: RAJAR
(NB. If anyone can tell me how to get a Google chart to include data values on the top of bars, then that’d be wonderful. Just comment below).
Broadly speaking it’s an upward trend. Yes, it’s flattened a little of late, but we also know that in Q4 2009 we passed 10m DAB sets in the market overall, so we can probably expect to see an increase in all digital listening in Q1 2010 when that data becomes available in May. As the chart shows, there have previously been significant jumps between Q4 and Q1 following those Christmas sales.
But we can also see that in Q4 2008 there was a 0.4% decrease from 18.7% to 18.3%. The figure then jumped up 1.8% to 20.1% in Q1 2009.
I make no secret that I work for a station that is very happy to see its digital listening increase substantially over the past couple of years. An AM-only music service is not going to have a long future in the 21st century.
Absolute Radio’s National service (i.e. excluding the FM London signal) has now reached 54.0%. Again there’s been the odd quarter where there have been decreases, but one data point is not a trend.

Source: RAJAR
None of this can disguise that overall fall in digital listening. Noted DAB sceptic, Grant Goddard, highlighted the fall in listening to digital only stations. He claims that “the UK radio industry’s strategy for its digital stations is in tatters.” He admits that there were no specific strategic shifts – no stations closing, and no notable format changes. Instead he claims that this “the result of increasing public malaise about the whole DAB platform and the radio content that is presently being offered on it (plus a little Q4 seasonality).”
But is that the whole story? I’d say not.
One of the less reported figures from this quarter’s RAJAR is that overall recorded listening fell – quite a lot, falling 2.1% to just below 1 billion hours a week. That’s very nearly 21m hours less listening a week, or about the amount of listening the Real Radio Network or Talksport achieves in a week. Whether or not that fall is the beginning of a trend or not is not something we know yet, but I suspect that it’s just a blip. It’s only a couple of quarters, after all, since we saw the biggest ever recorded audience for radio.
Yet despite that fall, DAB listening actually increased between Q3 and Q4 2009 (Digital radio, lest we forget is not identical to DAB radio. DAB is one element of digital radio, albeit the major one).

Source: RAJAR
That’s right: there’s more listening to DAB now than there has ever been and that’s in spite of there being fewer hours overall spent listening to radio.

Source: RAJAR
Clearly other forms of digital listening have decreased along with analogue listening. But these results would certainly seem to contradict claims of an “increasing public malaise about the whole DAB platform.”
People are actually spending longer listening to DAB radio; again it’s at a record high.

Source: RAJAR
Do we need better and more digital radio stations to continue to drive DAB uptake?
I’d never argue otherwise. But there are a few out there. Jazz FM had some good reach figures this quarter, even if its hours showed a decrease. NME showed a very good increase in listening hours, and these numbers include barely any listening via the national commercial DAB multiplex with NME only arriving on Digital One at the end of the quarter. Planet Rock continues to do very well with nearly five million hours all attributable to digital platforms. BBC 6Music has just achieved its largest ever reach figure with just short of 700,000 listeners, and the BBC Trust has just challenged it to increase those numbers (more on those findings to follow!). And Absolute 80s launched at the end of 2009. Although there won’t be any RAJAR figures for this service until May, it has been well received from what we can tell internally in terms of streaming.
Goddard published a chart similar to this:

Source: RAJAR
It shows digital listening for a number of services since Q1 2003. While I certainly haven’t included every digital only service on this chart, I’ve included all those that Goddard included as well as some of the BBC’s services.
There’s one over-riding service here that seems to be having a disproportionate impact on the numbers: The Hits. This is a service that shared its name with a sister TV channel, until the TV channel was renamed and relaunched as 4Music during Q3 2008. What’s more The Hits was one of only two music television services that were available on Freeview – surely the bedroom TV choice of many a 15-24? When 4Music launched in August 2008, listening for The Hits started to decline. And that decline has continued.
Can I prove that the two are related? No.
Could I definitively demonstrate that respondents completing RAJAR diaries were recording listening to a radio station when in fact they watching a music television channel? Absolutely not.
But what I can do is show you a chart without The Hits to see what impact it has on the overall picture.

Source: RAJAR
I think this presents a bit of a more positive story for digital only service providers.
Clearly there have been some dips in the most recent data, but there’s still an overall trend. And as Goddard himself noted, there wasn’t anything in particular in the fourth quarter of last year that would affect listening, so let’s see what Q1 2010 data brings before we write off digital services completely.
Radio operators obviously do need to offer strong services as an incentive to speed up the migration of listening to digital platforms. Nobody’s ever pretended this would be an easy journey, meeting an overall 50% level of digital listening remains a serious challenge. But let’s not conflate digital radio and DAB radio. And let’s not let a bad story get in the way of the facts shall we?
[Disclaimer: These are my opinions and not necessarily those of my employer.]